- Special Projects
UPDATED: August 22, 2014, 9:45 a.m.
Last year, the Maui County Police Department rolled out a new, quarter-million-dollar “BearCat” — an armored vehicle capable of repelling .50 caliber projectiles.
Marketed as a S.W.A.T or military attack and rescue vehicle, it would help keep officers safe during high-risk operations, Maui Police Chief Gary Yabuta said at the time.
This week, William Juan, a spokesman for the Friendly Isle’s police department, said he didn’t know if the vehicle has ever been used and that he couldn’t talk about the types of special missions it might be suitable for.
“We don’t want to say what we do as far as our tactical operations and tactical plan,” he said, adding that it could jeopardize the safety of police officers.
The Honolulu Police Department also has a BearCat used for responding to “chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive” attacks, according to the Police Department’s 2009 annual report.
HPD has also acquired millions of dollars worth of tactical gear and security equipment, including a high-tech, mobile command center, acoustic devices used for controlling crowds that emit high-pitched tones capable of causing hearing loss and thousands of pepper spray projectiles, taser cartridges and bean bag ammunition, government reports and records show.
“The increasing use of military equipment, weapons, and tactics against our own citizens is unacceptable and must stop.” — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
As protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer, national attention has turned to the militarization of police departments across the country. Images coming out of Ferguson have shown police officers lined up in camouflage, wearing body armor and toting assault rifles. And the military-style vehicles makes the scenes look more like a war zone than a domestic protest.
Just two months before unrest broke out in Ferguson, the U.S. House of Representatives voted against a measure that would help “demilitarize” the police. But now President Barack Obama and federal lawmakers, including Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, are calling for a review of programs that have helped supply police departments with military weapons.
“The increasing use of military equipment, weapons, and tactics against our own citizens is unacceptable and must stop,” Gabbard told the Wall Street Journal this week.
Much of the military-style gear being showcased in Ferguson and other cities in recent years comes from surplus equipment distributed by the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency and from grant programs initiated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Hawaii hasn’t participated in the Pentagon’s program in a decade, according to Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety. And according to HPD, the only thing it acquired through the program was office furniture — mainly file cabinets.
UPDATE: After this story was published, Civil Beat received information from the Defense Logistics Agency that contradicts these claims. According to DLA, Hawaii law enforcement agencies have received military tactical equipment under the Pentagon’s program, known as 1033, including three mine resistant vehicles that were shipped to Honolulu in March. In recent years, Hawaii also received four military utility trucks, a night vision image intesnsifier, infrared illuminator and “close quarters batt,” according to DLA.
Hawaii, like other states, has also received tens of millions of dollars through the Homeland Security Grant Program, intended to help states and counties prepare for terrorist threats and other disasters.
The federal government has doled out $40 billion in grants to states and counties throughout the country since 2002, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“It’s a secured site that HPD used for vehicles, equipment and supplies that are needed to prepare for or respond to major incidents.” — HPD spokeswoman Teresa Bell, referring to warehouse space in Ewa
It’s not clear how much of Hawaii’s share of the funds has gone to police departments.
HPD officials didn’t respond to Civil Beat’s interview requests for this report. It also didn’t respond to questions about what types of military-style gear or equipment the department has acquired over the years through city funds or the Homeland Security grant program.
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu didn’t respond to questions about how such equipment may have been used in the past, whether it is also intended to be used for public protests like those occurring in Ferguson or whether the department believes the funding has proven useful.
Teresa Bell, another HPD spokeswoman, would only say that the department has not used Homeland Security funds to purchase weapons.
Civil Beat also asked for an inventory of HPD equipment being stored in a warehouse space in Ewa. Yu would only provide a general description of the storage facility.
“It’s a secured site that HPD used for vehicles, equipment and supplies that are needed to prepare for or respond to major incidents,” she said by email. “At any given time it may include command and utility vehicles and communications equipment. For safety reasons, no firearms or ammunition are stored at the site.”
Yu didn’t respond to Civil Beat’s request for a tour of the facility.
Annual HPD reports provide some sense of the types of equipment the department has acquired in recent years.
In addition to the BearCat, the HPD also acquired a MD-500E helicopter with “global positioning system capabilities” in 2009.
That year, the department received $1.85 million in Homeland Security funds, which were used to purchase a mobile command center, satellite systems for its Alapai and Kapolei stations and “chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive personal protective equipment.”
On the shopping list were 25,000 pepper spray projectiles and 18,000 units of bean bag ammunition.
In 2010, the department received $1.35 million in Homeland Security grants to support “security equipment,” according to HPD’s annual report, which didn’t include further details.
In 2011, the department purchased equipment to “enhance bomb-mitigation abilities.” To this end, HPD acquired a Talon wireless robot and three bomb response vehicles.
From 2009 to 2011, HPD also acquired $700,000 in so-called “non-lethal” or “less-lethal” weapon technologies, according to past reporting from Civil Beat — much of it purchased in preparation for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in November 2011.
On the shopping list were 25,000 pepper spray projectiles and 18,000 units of bean bag ammunition — which according to one vendor, produces “a painful and powerful blunt impact reducing your liability profile in relation to lethal ammunition.”
HPD also purchased 3,000 taser cartridges and 375 PepperBall 10X powder projectiles, smoke canisters and foggers and tens of thousands of dollars worth of ammunition.